Burt Bacharach

As the songwriter’s work is reimagined in a new London show, he talks to Nigel Farndale about the price of fame

Before I meet Burt Bacharach at his hotel in London, I sit in on rehearsals for a new show of his music, a montage arranged and performed by Kyle Riabko, a 27-year-old Canadian. Because Bacharach, who is 87, had so many hits – 70 in the States, 50 here, usually with lyrics by the late Hal David – the show can’t include them all, not in an hour and a half.

But The Look of Love features in the show along with (They Long to Be) Close to You, I’ll Never Fall in Love Again, Do You Know the Way to San Jose and What the World Needs Now is Love. And just when I feel my heart can’t take any more, Riabko puts down his electric guitar, picks up a ukulele and plays Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.

He is sitting with me now as we wait for Bacharach to arrive, explaining, in quite technical terms, why these songs are “so damn good”: it’s to do with the shifting time signatures and irregular phrasing, apparently. “The best way to explain it is in terms of geometry,” he says. “He creates lots of musical shapes but never ends up with a square.”

As well as being the latest of more than 1,000 recording artists to have interpreted the Burt Bacharach songbook – including Dusty Springfield, Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick – Kyle Riabko is also a fan, but one with a difference: Bacharach is a fan of his.

The two became friends, despite the age gap, after meeting in an LA studio three years ago. The younger man then sent the older some demos on which he had breathed new life into the songbook — and Bacharach said it was “like receiving a love letter”.

He invited Riabko to his house in Santa Monica to play the demos to his youngest children, Oliver and Raleigh (now 22 and 19) and the demos evolved into What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined, which became a hit revue in New York. As well as Riabko, it features half a dozen other young singers and musicians and is directed by Steven Hoggett, the Olivier-winning choreographer. It is now transferring to London’s Menier Chocolate Factory.

Bacharach arrives with his manager, who promptly expresses concern about how cold the room is. She rearranges the chairs so that Bacharach, who is wearing a padded outdoor jacket, doesn’t have to sit near the air conditioner, then she leaves us.

“I was on stage last night at the Hampton Court Festival,” Bacharach says in a voice that sounds like bourbon poured over gravel, “and I don’t think I’ve ever felt so cold in my life. At one point I put a cough drop in my mouth, just before singing Hey little girl, and I tried to chew it as quickly as I could, but didn’t finish it in time for my next song and started coughing into the mic instead. I tried to get it out and then my fingers made the keyboard sticky.”

An endearingly self-deprecating anecdote, one that emboldens me to ask if he has ever heard one of his songs being played as background music in a lift? “Look, it’s a high compliment to hear your music played anywhere. I remember once Jane and I were having dinner in Italy and the pianist was playing That’s What Friends Are For, and there is a tricky chord change and he didn’t have it. A little later I went over and said, ‘Can I show you what that chord is?’ In a nice way, like it was a gift from me to him.”

We talk about how each generation of pop stars seems to discover the Burt Bacharach songbook for themselves and want to interpret it, from the Stranglers and the White Stripes to Elvis Costello and Dr Dre — and, of course, Noel Gallagher, who became obsessed with Bacharach.

What does he think is behind this cross-generational timelessness? “It’s a curious thing,” he says. “There was a time when you heard Backstreet Boys and NSYNC, very attractive songs, but three months later their music was gone. I think what gives my songs longevity is they have some meat to them, some depth.”

When pressed on what he means by this, he says one explanation might be Hal David’s lyrics. The two had a falling-out over royalties and didn’t speak for 10 years except through their lawyers, but they eventually patched things up.

“I will take the count for that one – my fault,” Bacharach said at the time of David’s death at the age of 91 in 2012. The lyrics often came first, he explains, and they tended to have difficult internal rhythms, such as What’s It All About, Alfie? They would force Bacharach to be creative in the way he accommodated them, using what Frank Sinatra called Bacharach’s “hat size” phrasing. “Alfie would never have been written without Hal’s lyrics coming first,” Bacharach says, “because it became a 10-bar phrase rather than eight. Or take Raindrops, that was from scoring Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They were dummy lyrics from Hal, a real mouthful, and he kept trying to change them, but he couldn’t come up with anything better.”

Just as well he didn’t as that song was not only a No 1 around the world, but also won them an Oscar.

“I have no rules apart from one,” Bacharach says. “Don’t make it difficult for the listener.” Just the singer. “Yeah, there were a few complaints,” he says with a chuckle. Complaints? There is a clip of Cilla Black recording Alfie at the Abbey Road Studios in 1965 and she looks like she is being tortured. He chuckles again. “Yeah, I made her do about 32 takes, then George Martin said to me, ‘I think we had it on take four, Burt’.”

His melodies are always tender, but also often melancholic. Has he ever moved himself to tears when writing one? “I can get emotional. I sometimes have to get away from the piano and go and lie down on the couch.”

But he says he rarely thought of the women he was in love with when he was writing. “There may have been some subconscious stuff going on, but it was more a matter of solving musical problems.”

His autobiography in 2013 revealed a layer of darkness, showing he could be not only crass and sexist but also as insensitive in his daily life as he was sensitive in his songs. So I ask him if he is difficult to live with. “Yeah, difficult to live with because of the hours I keep. But nowadays I try to go to bed at a quarter-to-ten. And I try to conform to dinner hours that work for the kids.”

Known as a prodigious womaniser – his nickname in the Manhattan of the Sixties was the Playboy of the Western World – Bacharach nevertheless managed to commit to marriage on four occasions. If he met his 16-year-old self and told him that’s what would happen, would he be surprised? “Well I don’t know about my 16-year-old self, but I know that I’m surprised. I thought I was a good kid, and I didn’t mean to hurt anybody, but when you wind up being married four times, there are a lot of bodies strewn in your wake.”

When I ask what advice he would give his 22-year-old son Oliver, his answer speaks volumes about the self-absorption/selfishness that can go with creativity. “My advice? If it’s not working then get out. Whatever it costs, and however much emotional damage it might cause, you have to get out, because you only have one life.”

And for his daughter Raleigh? “Don’t get knocked up in college.”

He is back on friendly terms with his second wife, the actress Angie Dickinson. “I called Angie on the way to the airport to see how she is, and I take her out to dinner about three times a year.” The two have a painful bond: a daughter who was on the autistic spectrum and who killed herself in a fit of depression at 40. “It was hard losing Nikki for both of us, but especially for Angie, because they were very, very close.”

Despite an even more bitter divorce, he is also now friends again with Carole Bayer Sager, his third wife, who wrote the lyrics for his 1981 song Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do), another No 1 and Oscar winner.

“And we share a son, but hey,” he says, shrugging, “you shouldn’t hold on to the past too much, even the good stuff.”